“The Battle of the Footbridge”
by Rick Hampson with Stephen Taylor
One of the most picturesque examples of “lost Radburn’’ was the wooden footbridge over Fair Lawn Avenue that connected Radburn’s North and South sides, allowing children from the latter to walk safely to school.
But no one has seemed to know or agree on exactly when and why the bridge was demolished – or even where it had stood – until now.
A news archives search shows that the footbridge was taken down in July 1952, just 22 years after its construction.
Why it was removed is a more complicated story -- and not a happy one for Radburn’s reputation as the pedestrian-friendly “Town for the Motor Age.’’
Safe for Children
The footbridge was erected in 1930, a little more than a year after the first families moved into Radburn. Although the new community’s tunnel under Howard Avenue, linking A and B Parks, would become its symbol, the footbridge was equally crucial in realizing Radburn’s often-advertised claim, “Safe for Children.’’
Its opening did make the October 19 edition of The New York Times, which reported that the new bridge was “a wooden truss-work structure of fir in natural wood finish, with ramps and shallow steps at either end.’’
The bridge stood about 120 yards east of Abbott Road, about halfway to Craig Road.
Before building the bridge, workers depressed Fair Lawn Avenue about two and a half feet to allow vehicle clearance while keeping the span low enough for comfortable pedestrian access.
The bridge papered over one of Radburn’s major flaws – a community designed to separate pedestrians and motor vehicles was in fact bisected by an increasingly busy county road.
But in 1948 the bridge’s access ramps were removed to allow construction of a garden apartment complex on Fair Lawn Avenue.
Ironically, the builder of the complex was Stan Carlson, who had been assistant superintendent and construction manager for the City Housing Corporation, which built Radburn and its predecessor community, Sunnyside Gardens in Queens. Carlson himself had moved from Sunnyside to 18 Aberdeen Place, becoming one of Radburn's first residents.
Unlike most early Radburnites, who were college graduates, Carlson had only two years of high school. But he became a member of the Radburn board and founder of the Radburn Brick Company, which was located where The Crossings stand today.
After World War II, he became a successful real estate developer – albeit not one who observed the planning principles upon which Radburn was founded.
Location of Footbridge and approach ramps from aerial photograph circa 1931.
In 1948 his company, Carlson Construction, began building the Park Hill Homes apartment complex on Fair Lawn Avenue. To do so, he apparently obtained permission to temporarily remove the long access ramps to the bridge, rendering it unusable.
Radburn residents were told the approaches would be restored, and a right of way established to the bridge.
Save the bridge
Around the same time -- coincidentally or otherwise -- the county told Fair Lawn officials that the bridge had been condemned. Carlson was to demolish it. But the Radburn Citizens Association, the Radrock Association and the Radburn School PTA, among others, insisted that the bridge be saved and enlisted the support of Fair Lawn Mayor John Pollitt. One newspaper called the controversy, “The Battle of the Footbridge.’’
Finally, the county said the bridge could stay if Carlson agreed to maintain it and assume liability. But no final agreement seems to have been reached.
Then, on the morning of March 9, 1949, a Radburn School first-grader named Howard Sufian was hit by a car while crossing Fair Lawn Avenue.
Although the boy was not seriously injured, the accident made clear the bridge’s importance. Less than two weeks later, on March 21, the span reopened. But now, instead of the gradually sloping ramps, the bridge had at each end staircases of about 25 steps – a much steeper climb.
There things stayed until the first week of July, 1952. Without fanfare, the bridge was torn down. This time there was no story in the Times, just an item in the Passaic Herald-News headlined “Radburn Footbridge Disappears; Few Even Notice Landmark’s Gone.’’
“The removal of the bridge has gone practically unnoticed by even old-time residents,’’ the paper reported.
The article noted that the span’s importance had been undercut by the opening of Milnes Elementary School, which southside Radburn children now attended and could reach on foot without crossing Fair Lawn Avenue.
Fair Lawn historian Jane Lyle Diepeveen, in her history of the borough, wrote that the footbridge was removed as part of the widening of Fair Lawn Avenue, probably in part to accommodate larger trucks.
Radburn to the rescue?
Radburn itself might have been able to step in to save the span. But the association, which originally was supposed to have included a population of 25,000, had been stunted financially by the Depression, which drove City Housing into bankruptcy. It probably would have been a financial stretch to rebuild or even maintain the bridge.
What happened to Stan Carlson, whose project initiated the bridge’s demise? By 1947 he had moved to Ridgewood. In the following year, in addition to the Fair Lawn Avenue complex, he developed a row of single-family houses on Hunter Place.
After City Housing filed for bankruptcy in 1934, much of its undeveloped land in Fair Lawn was sold. It would seem that Carlson was among those who purchased it at cents on the dollar, or obtained it from those who had.
The Cape-style Hunter Place houses were the antithesis of what Radburn’s designers called “the Radburn Idea,” and the epitome of post-war American suburbia: They faced the street, unconnected to any park, with no particular separation of pedestrians and vehicles.
It seems Carlson may have soured on the Radburn Idea. In 1951, at a discussion in New York City about Radburn, one participant asked why other developments hadn’t followed the Radburn pattern. Carlson spoke up, saying (according to a summary of the session) that the Radburn Association assessment “is a cost factor that real estate promoters and builders do not believe their customers will pay for.’’
Radburn to the rescue?
A successful career
Carlson did well for himself. In 1948 he became president of the Homebuilders Association of North Jersey. A subsequent newspaper article reported that he “has constructed thousands of homes in Long Island and Bergen County and is one of the state’s foremost builders.”
In 1954 he built more garden apartment units on Plaza Road between Howard and High Street. His local business partners included Maxwell Golburgh, for decades the principal realtor in Radburn. In 1957 he built the Ramsey Shopping Center.
Carlson was known for his philanthropy. For example, he donated the extensive concrete piping for the new borough swimming pool in Memorial Park. When he died in Palm Springs, Calif, in 1989 at age 90, he left the lion’s share of his $25 million estate to four Roman Catholic homes for the elderly in New Jersey.
But his role in the demise of the Fair Lawn Avenue footbridge is a stain on his record. Over the years the Radburn stretch of the avenue has seen numerous pedestrian accidents, including several fatalities -- a sad legacy for a community that styled itself “the Town for the Motor Age.’’
Rick Hampson and Stephen Taylor are Radburn residents who’ve developed a walking tour of Historic Radburn. For information about a free tour, contact Rick at firstname.lastname@example.org